The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962
NOWHERE in Marx’s early discussion of rational morality and rational law do we find Marx treating these as means, as principles of conduct meant to ensure the production of the maximum ‘good’ possible in any given situation. He was not interested in the ‘moral’ problems of the individual faced with inherently ‘evil’ situations, conditions in which someone must suffer, have his desires thwarted, be dominated or constrained. The fear of a Burke that sound moral intentions, in political life, could produce evil results, the problem of a Godwin forced to choose between saving Archbishop Fenelon or his mother, would have seemed to Marx nothing but an attempted piece-meal accommodation with evil. As long as such ‘contradictions’ were possible, Marx would have retorted, society is not yet rational, man is not yet free, true morality is still impossible. There can be no rational principles for dealing with ‘contradictions’ except by resolving these contradictions. ‘Rights and duties’, Marx writes in the German Ideology (M I, 5, 192), ‘are the two complementary sides of a contradiction which belongs only to civil society.'
For Marx, morality and law represented the unflowering of man’s essential being (Wesen) and an essence, according to Marx, is always truly universal. The human essence or spirit is what is common to all men: their eternal nature. It must therefore express itself above all in the unity of men, in overcoming the divisions created by their empirical particularity. Conflict for Marx stems from the empirical particularities and distinctions among men; but these distinctions for Marx are secondary, destined to be overcome by the unflowering of the human essence. ‘What is the kernel of empirical evil?’ asked Marx in the preliminary notes for his dissertation. ‘That the individual locks himself into his empirical nature against his eternal nature.’ (M I, 1-i, III.) No doubt, traditional moralists and legal theorists, with their dualism of facts and standards, had sought to erect moral and legal norms based on an attempted accommodation between man’s empirical divisiveness and rational unity. But such an accommodation, Marx firmly believed, was pointless, necessarily incoherent and unstable, doomed to be swept away in the historical progress toward rational freedom. Only with the full fruition of the human spirit or essence could morality arise. Since the essence is universal, its first and primary condition is the rational society, in which the traditional problems of morality and law are entirely resolved. The true basis of morality is not individual conduct, but social organisation. On this ground Marx proclaimed the rational society, ‘the concretisation of human freedom’ (M I, 1-i, 248). ‘Philosophy,’ he said in the same article — an attack, written in July, 1842, on the editorial opinions of the rival Kölnische Zeitung-'interprets the rights of man, it demands that the State shall be the State of human nature’ (M I, 1-i, 247).
In such a rational State, a universal ‘political intelligence’ rules:
The question is whether special interest shall represent political intelligence or whether political intelligence shall represent special interest. Political intelligence will regulate the ownership of land according to the maxims of the State, it will not regulate the maxims of the State according to the ownership of land; it will enforce the ownership of land not according to its private egoism, but according to its civic nature; it will not determine the universal being according to this or that particular being, but it will determine this or that particular being according to the universal being.
(Article on ‘The Committee of Estates in Prussia’, M I, 1-i, 333.)
The divided State, the unfree State, stands to the rational State just as the unfree animal stands to the rational man:
The unfree condition of the world demands rights of bondage, for while human right is the existence of freedom, animal right is the existence of bondage. Feudalism in the broadest sense is the spiritual kingdom of animals, the world of divided humanity in contrast with the world of self-distinguishing humanity, whose inequality is nothing but the spectrum of equality. (Discussion on wood theft laws, M I, 1-i, 272.)
In the first Hegel critique Marx takes up the same point. The Middle Ages, which represented the form of bondage, which divided man from his universal being, he says, ‘are the animal history of humanity, its zoology’ (M I, 1-i, 499).
Civic morality and the criticism of the State, then, reveal the same ethical categories as Marx’s examination of the individual, whom Marx indeed sees as above all a universal, social being. In the rational State, man, as individual and as universal essence of the State, is self-determined — the State is harmonious, stable and free from self-contradiction. ‘A State, which is not the concretisation (Verwirklichung) of rational freedom, is a bad State’ (M I, 1-i, 248). The imperfect or bad State is characterised by incomplete self-determination, division, instability and self-contradiction.
Above all, the rational State is the State of a truly unified humanity. Its chief enemies, for the young Marx, are special interests, privileges and the estate or class, all of which elevate social divisions into a principle of social organisation:
In general, the significance of the estate is that it treats difference, separation, as the existential content of the individual. Instead of making him a member, a function, of society, his manner of life, activity, etc., make him an exception from society; they constitute his privilege. The fact that this difference is not merely an individual one, but entrenches itself as a common way of being (Gemeinwesen), as estate or corporation, not only fails to dissolve the exclusive nature of the difference, but is actually its expression. Instead of each individual function being a function of society, this makes the individual function a society in itself.
Not only is the estate based on the separation of society taken as a governing principle, but the estate separates man from his universal being, it makes him an animal ...
(M I, 1-i, 499.)
Similarly, Hegel’s rational monarchy is for Marx the very reverse of rational or truly free, for ‘in monarchy, a part determines the character of the whole’ (M I, 1-i, 434). Monarchy represents a State divided against itself, just as the class represents man divided against himself.
Privilege is for Marx the most obvious expression of such division.
In his contributions to the Rheinische Zeitung, especially in his discussions of the debates on press freedom and the wood theft laws, it becomes a synonym for lawlessness, for apparent freedom as opposed to true freedom, for man divided against himself (i.e., against another man, which for Marx is the same thing). ‘The customary rights of the privileged in their content rebel against the form of the universal law. They cannot be formed into laws, because they are formations of lawlessness.’ (M I, 1-i, 273.) Even in a small footnote to a contributed article advocating protective tariffs because of their success in England, Marx finds the philosophical criterion applicable:
The example of England refutes itself, because it is precisely in England that we see the appearance of the pernicious results of a system which is not the system of our times, but which corresponds rather to the conditions of the Middle Ages, conditions which were based on separation and not unity, which had to give special protection to every special sphere because they did not have the universal protection of a rational State and a rational system of individual States.
(M I, 1-i, 308-9.)
Now in this concept of the rational State as the State of the human essence, of truly unified humanity, there are obvious difficulties. Basically, they resolve themselves into the general difficulty of determining and describing the relationship between men as individuals, as particular, empirical beings, and the State that is supposed to be a form of their essence, the concretisation of their freedom. Marx himself draws attention to the way this difficulty arises in paragraph 261 of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the paragraph with which Marx begins the extant portions of his first Hegel critique. In that paragraph Hegel says:
In contrast with the spheres of private rights and private welfare (the family and civil society), the State is from one point of view an external necessity and their higher authority; its nature is such that their laws and interests are subordinate to it and dependent on it. On the other hand, however, it is the end immanent within them, and its strength lies in the unity of its own universal end and aim with the particular interests of individuals, in the fact that individuals have duties to the State in proportion as they have rights against it.
Here, according to Marx, we already have a crucial antinomy, the conflict between the State as external necessity acting on men and as immanent principle within man. To speak of the State as external necessity is to imply that in a conflict between public and private interest, private interest must give way. Admittedly, Hegel does not speak of such a conflict, he portrays the situation rather as a relationship of spheres. But even so, Marx insists, Hegel’s use of words like ‘subordinate’ and ‘dependent’ implies clearly that the character of the lower sphere is constrained from outside — we are still left with the unresolved antinomy between external necessity (for Marx, though not so simply for Hegel, normally a sign of evil) and immanent purpose.
In the rest of the critique, Marx does not go on to tackle the antinomy directly, but gets drawn into a more detailed criticism of Hegel’s ‘systematic’ exposition of politics, in which he is able to show well enough how Hegel’s careful logical deductions are consistently empty, the formal premises providing no real ground for the empirical content of the institutions he pretends to deduce from them. Soon, however, we begin to see that this antinomy forms the crux of the political issue between Marx and Hegel, and that the whole of the first Hegel critique is in fact an attempt to resolve that antinomy. Already Marx has rejected the Absolute Idea, because, like God and the external physical laws of a mechanical science, it marked the subjugation of man to an external determination, to something that was not a form of his essence. Now, for that same reason, he wants to reject a State that is not entirely human, not solely a form of man’s essence, but also a form of the nonhuman Absolute Idea, an external necessity acting on man from outside.
Marx obviously feels that there are no major difficulties in the way of resolving that antinomy once we reject the Absolute Idea as a metaphysical form logically outside man and the world, and accept instead, as the motive power of history and the logical concept that manifests itself in the rational State, the universal spirit or essential being of man. Thus for Marx the State is not the concretisation of an empty, nonhuman, metaphysical, rational will, but the concretisation of essential human nature. It is immanent principle, and it is not external necessity at all.
Marx still has to give an account of that obvious basis of social conflict which makes Hegel treat the State as also representing external necessity: the conflict between private interests, divisive groups, all that which Hegel calls civil society, and the unified system which Marx and Hegel call the rational State. Hegel, despite the not unjustified sneer by Marx and Feuerbach that he makes the State the subject and society the predicate, does begin with the divisiveness of particular interests, with the assumption that civil society by itself never rises above particularity, dependence and necessary contradiction, and deduces from this its necessary logical completion by the State, which brings order, universality and freedom where there was instability, particularity, dependence and increasing misery. Admittedly, Hegel wants to say that civil society is ‘taken up’ into the rational State, and that the resultant order is in some sense its own order. But the very emphasis on external necessity, dependence and subordination which Marx criticises, the concern with the individual’s ‘rights’ and ‘duties’, make it clear that Hegel does not simply dissolve the particularity of interests, but tries to mould them into a rational system. The whole Philosophy of Right becomes a study of the methods and institutions by which the State can keep civil society in check. Marx, on the other hand, in making the rational State the State of the human essence, and thus ultimately completely identifying it with civil society in a way that the later Hegel did not, does not even try to grapple with man’s ‘particularity’, with the relationship of specific activities, interests and strivings to man’s ‘human essence’. For Marx, once the essence has come to its full self-determination, the conflicting, divisive, features of human activities simply disappear — in place of division comes the distinction that is ‘the spectrum of equality’. We have seen how Marx had solved in his doctoral dissertation the apparent antinomy of the free Epicurean atom which is nevertheless determined from the outside because it is repelled by other atoms. In being repelled by another atom, said Marx, it is simply related to another atom, that is, to itself; hence it is not unfree at all. Similarly, Marx obviously feels, in the rational State, man, in being related either to other men or to the State, is simply related to the human essence, that is, to himself.
Neither in the first Hegel critique nor anywhere else in his work does Marx make any real attempt to get to grips with the problem of relating and distinguishing man’s universal essence, his Wesen, and his existence as a particular, empirical, being. He does take up in the critique, however, a political question connected with this problem: the question of the relationship between the State as a concrete manifestation of human freedom and the individual person within the State. Marx rejects sharply Hegel’s view that the ‘rational will’ can be embodied in a single individual (the Monarch) and argues instead that the rational State, to be free, must be democratic. What Marx means by democracy, however, must be examined carefully.
In his relatively popular polemical work for the Rheinische Zeitung Marx was constantly fighting against the conception that civic affairs could be the prerogative of a certain class or group. Often he sounded as though he were demanding democratic control as something requiring merely representative control. This was emphatically not his conception. Like Rousseau, he would have conceded that the will of the majority and the rational will are not necessarily identical, though, again like Rousseau, he was not always anxious to stress the differences. But the notion of representation Marx rejects emphatically, both on the grounds that to be free is to be active, self-determining, and on the grounds that representation undermines the truly universal character of the State.
To be represented is in general something miserable; only the material, spiritless, dependent, insecure need representation; but no element of the State can be permitted to be material, spiritless, dependent, insecure.
(‘On the Committees of Estates in Prussia’, M I, 1-i, 334.)
In the first Hegel critique Marx reinforces this with a more general point — representation converts civic affairs into sectional affairs, into special interests, and thus destroys the very basis of the rational State. It is the product of the divorce between political or civic affairs and human affairs in general, of the gulf between the State and civil society. This divorce, this ‘abstraction’ (in the Hegelian sense) of the political State, Marx sees as a modern phenomenon. The medieval State, even though the State of human nature in bondage, was nevertheless a State of human nature, though not in its rational form. ‘Folk life and civic life were identical’ (M I, 1-i, 437.)
Hegel, however, had posed the problem in the form of an antinomy: If citizens are not to participate in the State through representatives then each citizen must take part as an individual. This would be impossible:
To hold that all persons should share, as individuals in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern on the ground that all individuals are members of the State, that its concerns are their concerns and that it is their right that what is done should be done with their knowledge and volition, is tantamount to a proposal to put the democratic element without any rational form into the organism of the State, although it is only in virtue of the possession of such a form that the State is an organism at all. (Philosophy of Right, para. 308).
Marx seeks to solve the problem by cutting through and rejecting both alternatives:
The antinomy in its essential form is: all the individuals do it, or the individuals do it as some, as not-all. In both cases allness remains only external multiplicity or totality of individuals. Allness is not an essential, vital, actual quality of the individual. Allness is not something through which he loses the character of abstract individuality; allness is only the full number of individuality. One individual, many individuals, all individuals. The one, many, all — none of these descriptions changes the essential being of the subject, of individuality.
(M I, 1-i, 539-40.)
The contrast here is between universality as a mere collection, universality treated extensionally, and universality as an intrinsic character, universality treated intensionally. It is the same distinction as the distinction between Rousseau’s ‘truly general’ will and what is merely the common will of a majority, or even of an entire totality. The rational State is the State of this intensional universality. Its universality rests on the fact that it is a form of the human essence, of man’s essential being, which is, in virtue of its character as an essence, common to the entire species. Its universality does not rest on any voting by its members, on any counting of supporters and opponents.
What then is the relationship of particular, empirical men to their universal essence and to the rational State? The essence and State, according to Marx, ultimately permeate their entire being: social life and citizenship, civil society and State, become one; man’s every action is an expression of the universal essence, and a part of his civic being. Thus, immediately after rejecting representation, in his article on the Prussian Committees of Estates, as something required by the spiritless and insecure, Marx writes:
Representation must not be understood as the representation of some stuff, which is not the people itself, but only as the self-representation of the people. It must be understood as a civic act which differs from the other expressions of the people’s civic life only by the generality of its content; it must not be understood as the people’s only, exceptional civic act. Representation must not be regarded as a concession to defenceless weakness, to impotence, but rather as the self-confident vitality of the highest power. In a true State there is no landed property, no industry, no gross stuff, which, as such raw elements, could make a bargain with the State; there are only spiritual [geistige] powers, and only in their resurrection in that State, in their political re-birth, do the natural powers qualify for a voice in the State. The State pervades all of nature with spiritual nerves, and at every point it must become apparent that what dominates is not matter but form, not nature without the State but the nature of the State, not the unfree thing, but the free man.
(M I, 1-i, 335.)
According to Marx, when
civil society is the true political society, it is nonsense to make a demand which arose only from the conception of the political State as having an existence divorced from that of civil society ... In these circumstances the significance of the legislative power as a representative power disappears wholly. The legislative power is representative here in the same sense as every function is representative, in the sense, for instance, that the cobbler, in so far as he fulfils a social need, is my representative, in the sense that every specific social activity, as a species of activity, represents only the species, i.e., a character of my own being, in the sense that every man represents the other. He is a representative in this case not through something else, which he symbolises, but through that which he is and does.
(M I, 1-i, 542.)
This, then, is Marx’s vision of the moral and historical end of man: the rational State which is the State of a human essence that is qualitatively and essentially universal. As such, it is self-distinguishing, but absolutely precludes separation or conflict. We do find in it a division of functions, but one that arises ‘naturally’ and spontaneously. Since each function is a manifestation or activity of the human essence, since each truly represents man’s universal being, all functions are naturally harmonious components of a united social life. There is no call for an external power to apportion or to harmonise their various roles; there is no need for a coercive political State outside or above the society that rationally arranges itself. The conflict of rights and duties, of ‘private’ and ‘public’ wills, of individual and society, disappears from the arena of history.
The first Hegel critique, written soon after Marx’s resignation from the Rheinische Zeitung and just before his emigration to Paris and Brussels, marks the end of one brief period of relatively popular writing by a very young man and forms the beginning of the new stage of intensive work and thought which was to make Marx a Communist. In the critique, Marx had to make clear to himself why he rejected the coercive State envisaged by Hegel and on what grounds one could proclaim the free society of the truly human man. Marx believed that he had done so. From then on, the problem that occupied him was how that society would necessarily come about. Its final nature occupied him less and less. In the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 and in the German Ideology two years later he presents a detailed view of the rational society of Communism for the last time. His language is already increasing economic, but his metaphysical assumptions remain: ‘The fully realised society produces man in the full richness of his being, it produces the rich man, genuinely equipped with all his senses [der tief allsinnige Mensch].’ Wants and enjoyments lose their egoistic nature and utility becomes human, universal, social utility. Man is united not only with himself but even with Nature, which he makes part of his being and function.
The radicalism of Marx’s position, as well as its concrete merits, which are discussed in Part III below, is somewhat obscured by the fact that Marx so far still speaks of rational law and a rational State — i.e., of freedom as a system of rules. Certainly, he cannot give such a position any concrete content. He cannot show on what ‘rational’ basis a court would decide precisely the point where a marriage ceases to be one; he cannot show what are the rules of ‘political intelligence’ by which a truly rational society would be dominated. It seems to me that there is little point in driving these arguments home against Marx at length. The conceptions of rational law and of a rational State which he proclaims at this period are confused versions of his position — residues of a moralism he is soon to abandon entirely. The view he is working toward is a far subtler and sounder view. A true ‘marriage’ — i.e., a genuine love between two persons — unifies the persons involved, brings them together in a co-operative relationship that transcends concern with purely individual ends. Such a relationship is not created by laws or rules and cannot be maintained by them when it has ceased to exist. (Marx’s talk of ‘caprice’ only confuses this issue and reduces his position to the vulgar moralism he decries in theology.) Again, a truly free and co-operative society is one in which people participate in free and co-operative activities: a system in which people ‘participate’ only through representatives is not a free and co-operative society, but one in which people are in dependence, in which they lack the enterprise characteristic of freedom. What Marx means by the ‘rational’ State, then, is no State at all; what is implied by his conception of ‘rational’ law is no law at all. As long as either law or the State remain $necessary’ society is neither truly co-operative nor truly free. This is the view at which Marx was soon consciously to arrive.